Who knew that cocktails are essentially an American invention? That an “American Bar’ in Europe means a cocktail bar? That it wasn’t only the Pickwickians that belonged to The Sporting Fraternity? Or that ice from upstate New York would find its way to a drink in Havana?
David Wondrich enlightened a group of us at the National Arts Club last night. His new book, "Imbibe!" is the history of the cocktail and of Jerry Thomas, who wrote one of the earliest bartender guides. This guy’s life would make a great HBO mini-series, it’s got it all: humble beginnings, adventure at sea, the California Gold Rush, fame, fortune, diamond studs, loss of fortune and death at a relatively early age. His life is a window into an explosive time in U.S. history, where men were men, empires were being built, and the cocktail hour started at breakfast.
And as it is with any open window, the breeze blows in with hints of other tantalizing things that need to be explored. Today, I’m fascinated with The Sporting Fraternity. I spent most of last summer reading Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. Originally published in installments, it became a huge success and told the story of Mr. Pickwick and his sporting club. Basically they caroused and had endless adventures, and while Mr. Pickwick had a good time and a good appetite for food and drink, he also was a man of principle. Seems that the sporting club wasn’t a Dickens invention, but an actual movement.
Here’s a quote from Wondrich’s book: “But to be a member of the sporting fraternity involved far more than merely taking an interest in sports. In the nineteenth century, there were really two Americas; two kinds of Americans. There were the ones to whom the freedom upon which the country was founded meant something like, “If I work hard, avoid temptation and play by the rules, I will be unmolested in my enjoyment of the fruits of my labors,” and the ones to whom it meant, “Nobody can tell me what to do.”
“…-the sporting life was all about maintaining a “front,” and a true sport would spend his last fifty cents on a cognac Cocktail and having his coat brushed, with a ten cent tip for the boy who brushed it. You were rich, you were broke, you were rich again – sometimes all on the same day. For the Victorians, money was an object; for the Sports, it was a process.”
This is fascinating stuff; it gives us a glimpse into the evolution of American and British character.
I never thought of cocktails as being a reference point for studying America, but David Wondrich has me thinking in a whole new direction.
And you thought I went to the lecture just for a free Manhattan cocktail!